The Incense of Prayer

The parasha for this week (March 11-17, 2023) is called Ki Tisa. Packed with rich insight and majestic mystery, Ki Tisa includes God’s instructions for the offering of incense to Him in Israel’s holy tabernacle and temple. Today, neither tabernacle nor temple exists. But as a New Covenant believer,  your personal ministry to God—even you yourself—are as a holy and fragrant incense to Him. “We are the sweet fragrance of Messiah unto God” (2 Corinthians 2:15). What does this profound reality suggest?

From the parasha, Exodus 30:34-37 (NIV) says: “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Take fragrant spices—gum resin, onycha and galbanum—and pure frankincense, all in equal amounts and make a fragrant blend of incense, the work of a perfumer. It is to be salted and pure and sacred. Grind some of it to powder and place it in front of the Testimony in the Tent of Meeting, where I will meet with you….Consider it holy to the Lord.'”

First, consider that the person and ministry of Yeshua are as incense to God and to us. “Messiah loved us and gave Himself up for us, an offering to God, a sweet fragrance” (Ephesians 5:2). A similar reality is expressed in Song of Solomon 3:6. “Who is this coming up from the wilderness like a cloud of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense?” Here the implied reference is to Yeshua.

Pure, sacrificial love is fragrant in the spirit realm. In temple times, this was tangibly expressed by the priestly offering of physical incense. Today, incense is still important to God through the priestly ministry of worship and prayer. As a follower of Yeshua, you have the high honor of being part of His royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9 ). Though intangible, the concept is not merely metaphorical.

To the extent you are a man or woman of prayer, you are as incense to God. In Hebrew, Psalm 109:4 literally reads, “I am prayer.” Now consider that Psalm 141:2 translates, “Let my prayer be set before You as incense.” Together, these verses imply that in the realm of the Spirit, a prayerful, dedicated believer is genuinely as sweet incense to Him.

Personally, I delight in sweet aromas. They can uplift my spirit and soothe my soul. The notion that to Almighty God, I can somehow be a sweet aroma, serving even as incense, elevates my understanding of who I am in Him, to Him and for Him. It stirs devotion and fresh passion for my Beloved King–as I trust it does for you, too.

But to be as incense, a crushing, fiery process is involved. In actual practice, the incense ingredients of Exodus 30 were pulverized and beaten into tiny pieces. Next, they were burned by a controlled fire. Only then could their sweet aroma be released.

At times you may feel beaten into small pieces and pulverized. You may feel “the heat is on” and you’re passing through fire. Be encouraged that in this trying process, God is working in you an ever deepening, surrendered condition of soul. Remember that a soul surrendered in love releases prayer and worship that is a pure and sweet, delightful fragrance to Him. Be encouraged that the aroma of incense can be produced and released no other way.

Exodus 30 identifies four specific ingredients for the temple incense (called ketoret). Each was highly prized, extraordinarily costly and greatly valued. Similarly, you are highly prized and valuable to God and His kingdom. This means you are an essential “ingredient” to the Body of Messiah, one needed for the full release of the destiny of the entire ekklesia. As the ketoret was a blend of spices, each member of the Body is a needed ingredient to the blend of worship and prayer we collectively offer God in our generation.

Next, consider that when you inhale a substance, it enters into your body, gets absorbed, and in a sense, becomes part of you. When your prayers ascend to God, they are carried and sanctified by the Holy Spirit. They get absorbed into heaven. In some mysterious manner, I believe your prayers and worship may get absorbed into the heart of God Himself as He “inhales” them as incense.

What might the 4 specific ingredients of the ketoret of Exodus 30 reveal about our relationship and journey with God?

(1) The Hebrew word used for the first spice is nataf, which simply means “a drop.” Bible scholars and botanists today do not know exactly what nataf was or is, although some translate it as storax or stacte. Some, but not all, believe the reference is to myrrh. In Scripture, myrrh is said to symbolize bitterness, affliction or suffering. Nataf drops are believed to have resembled tear drops. Perhaps that is our clue: nataf is a spice derived from a plant with sap that, like myrrh, drips like tears. Sometimes, the incense we offer God today comes from tears shed to express the passion, even brokenness of heart, of our worshipful, prayerful surrender to Him.

(2) Onycha (shekhelet, from a biblical root meaning “to roar”) is the second of the ketoret ingredients. The word is used only once in Scripture, here in Exodus 30. Like nataf, its identity is uncertain. Some believe onycha was resin from labdanum. A subspecies of labdanum quite possibly used in ketoret was rock rose (sometimes also identified as the rose of Sharon). The name is derived from the fact this plant seemingly stems from very dry rock, where nothing else can grow.

There may be times when you feel like rock rose, stuck or hidden in a dry, rocky place where seemingly nothing can grow. Be encouraged! At such times, precious roots for prayer and worship may not only take hold in you, but actually flourish. Interestingly, some Bible scholars say the sound made in collecting onycha resembled a lion’s roar. Perhaps the jealous roar of the Lion of the tribe of Judah sounds in the spirit over you as you’re being prepared, like onycha, to serve as beautifully fragrant incense.

(3) Like the ingredients above, the spice galbanum (khelbanah) is used only in Exodus 30. Defined merely as “fragrant gum,” the word stems from a Hebrew root meaning to be fat, rich, choice or the best of something. God receives your wholehearted devotion, prayer and worship as top choice, a full and rich offering in the spirit of Romans 12:1. Galbanum is also said to have had strong healing properties. When ignited by His love, we offer God the choice portion or best of everything that is ours. This process is not only healing and life-giving for us, but in His hands, for extended kingdom purposes.

(4) The fourth ingredient of temple incense was frankincense (levona). The name comes from a Hebrew word meaning “white.” White implies purity. Frankincense drips from a tree with flowers that are white and is covered by a sticky white substance when it solidifies. It is derived from bleeding the tree by cutting it sharply and letting its sap drip in the form of golden tears. Frankincense is the spice mentioned in Song of Solomon 3:6 “Who is this coming up from the wilderness like a cloud of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense?” The implied reference here is to Yeshua. But your surrender to God is also a pure and sweet perfume which He adores.

While God commanded only the above 4 ingredients for ketoret, it is believed 11 spices were actually used, at least in the Second Temple. One particular ingredient was added to cause smoke from the burning incense to ascend straight up and not be blown about by the wind. To ancient Israel, this symbolized a direct ascent to God’s heavenly temple. It stirred the priests and lay people to keep the Recipient of the incense (and of their inistry) foremost in mind and heart. They were not to focus on the fragrant beauty of the incense itself.

The offering of incense to YHVH was not about making the temple smell good or setting a religious mood. Incense was (and is) very important to Him, as seen by how the writers of Scripture recount how each of Israel’s kings allowed it to be used or misused – and the consequences.

Consider that according to Bible scholars, temple incense was burned on an altar placed directly in front of the curtain leading into the Holy of Holies. This meant the act of offering incense physically placed the priests the closest they could get to the Holy of Holies, except on Yom Kippur. Today, your closest intimacy with the Holy One will often be experienced through surrendered prayer and worship.

Your prayers will also play a significant role in the unfolding of events associated with the coming of Yeshua. Revelation 8:3-4 says, “An angel in heaven was given much incense to offer with the prayers of the saints upon the golden altar before the Throne. The smoke of the incense with the prayers of the saints ascended before God from the angel’s hand.” As a result, angelic activity reserved for the end times is released on earth.

As we transition from Purim to Passover and Resurrection Day, ask the Holy Spirit to renew your heart for prayer and worship, especially if you’re tempted to grow weary in well doing. Remember that your prayers and worship are as incense to Him. What’s even more exhilarating, you yourself are as incense to Him, delighting your Beloved’s heart for eternity.